M&S re-imagines the Oregon Treaty

meyer-vineyards-2Just when you thought Canada has finally established itself on the global wine map, something crops up that makes it abundantly clear that there is still a long way to go.

As the price tag in the photo shows, it seems that not even Marks & Spencer is aware that Canada is a sovereign wine-producing nation – even though Canadian wine is nothing new for the retailer.

Despite a bottle that clearly states the wine’s origins — British Columbia, Canada — someone in the M&S machine decided to print a run of shelf tags that declare this Meyer Family Vineyards Pinot Noir as a product of the USA.

Perhaps the powers-that-be at M&S have decided that the Oregon Treaty of 1846 had a more disastrous outcome for the British, placing the Canada-USA border much further north than its current path along the 49th parallel.

How else could they have confused a wine from Canada’s Okanagan Valley  as being from the USA?

The wine in question is Meyer Family Vineyards Pinot Noir Oakanagan Valley 2014, which sells for £18.99 per bottle here in the UK.

Back in September this year when I visited the Meyer Family Vineyards winery in Okanagan Falls, British Columbia, it was, as far as I could tell, still on the Canadian side of the border. Unless something went drastically wrong between then and now, I believe this is still the case. It’s also fairly unlikely that the Americans mounted an opportunistic land grab during the recent election campaign.

wpid-dsc_0068.jpgView from the Meyer tasting room

Along with several other wines, I was able to taste the 2013 vintage of the Meyer Family Vineyards Okanagan Valley Pinot Noir, their entry-level version of this varietal wine. I can’t say for sure if the wine made for Marks & Spencer is made in the same way as the one sold in their home market, but these were my observations:

Meyer Family Vineyards Okanagan Valley Pinot Noir 2014

On the nose it has aromas of red berries, boiled sweets, forest floor and mushrooms along with brambly, spicy notes. Aged in older barrels with no new oak, this has plenty of red berries on palate with medium acidity. It is not one bit astringent, which is a characteristic that can plagues other entry-level pinots. Very enjoyable. — September 2015

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Dear Canada: Please send more wine

ID-10098086Not long ago I was buying a humble bottle of Good Ordinary Claret at a shop in a part of London known for Rolls-Royces, Rolex watches and Savile Row suits when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a gleaming object that was distinctly Canadian.

Not just anything Canadian, but a bottle of Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2008.

I must admit I sort of fizzed with excitement.As an ex-pat from British Columbia, it isn’t often when I see Canadian wines — let alone those from my home province — in British shops, so spotting this bottle on the shelf at Berry Bros & Rudd provided me with a moment of excitement.

If I were French and if said bottle were also French, my inner dialogue would have acknowledged its existence with a smug “of course” and no more would have been thought about the subject.

But we Canadians have become famous for spotting the wares of our land and sharing our discoveries with everyone within earshot.

And so, with the above being the case, I did what any other of my fellow countrymen or women would do and insisted I share my discovery with person nearest to me. This is how the (very likely awkward) conversation went:

“I see you’ve started stocking Osoyoos Larose now. I have a few vintages of that in my cellar,” I said to the woman behind the till in a way that I hoped didn’t sound like boasting, but very likely did.

“Oh yes, that’s the only bottle of Canadian wine we have in the entire company,” the salesperson replied.

“Someone was asking me about Canadian wine a while back and after searching our database it turns out that we have just a single bottle — that one.”

This is the problem with Canadian wine outside Canada. If you want it, you almost always have to drag it back on an airplane because few British retailers stock it. But all of this could be changing. Lately I’ve noticed a few Canadian wines available at merchants such as Highbury Vintners, which has had a small but varying selection for the past few years. Other merchants have carried one or two Canadian wines, but the selection has been limited, fleeting and, quite often consisting of the usual suspects.

Making matters worse, Canada’s reputation as a wine-producing nation has been fairly poor. But following a tasting of Canadian wines in London earlier this year, opinions seem to be improving and are now receiving positive reviews. Sadly, most of what was on offer at this tasting is not available here, which is of little help for those who wanted to buy a few bottles.

ID-10095066So what can we get? Google has provided me with few answers. There is always  Le Clos JordanneInniskillin and Bachelder, distributed in the UK by Liberty Wines. Le Clos Jordanne has become the flag-bearer for Canadian wine in the UK and is widely available. Adequate as it may be, a wino can’t be sustained on the same pinot noir and chardonnay day in, day out. So what else can they offer us? Not much. Unfortunately, the ever-present ice wines available from retailers across the land is a novelty that we just can’t shake off our backs. 

Recently the Wine Society began selling two Norman Hardie wines, a pinot noir and chardonnay, both of which are rated highly. But we need more than just another pinot noir and chardonnay. Where are the syrahs, the cabernet blends, the rieslings and everything else?

If the pickings are slim, the question, then, is why don’t we see much more Canadian wine now that people are beginning to take it more seriously?

The answer is one of capacity, demand and marketing. A quick look at the industry’s vital statistics shows an industry that produces a tiny quantity of wine compared to the rest of the world. The export market for Canadian wine is nascent, even if it has been operating domestically on a small scale for decades. The Canadian Vintners’ Association says there are 11,130 hectares of vineyard and 1,700 grape growers and vineyards in the country, while New Zealand, which has a much smaller population but a much more hospitable climate, has a production area of 33,400 hectares.

When it comes to exports, New Zealand sends almost seven times more wine to overseas markets than Canada, at 179-million litres compared with just 26.2-million litres. More than 24-million litres goes to the US alone; just 343,229 litres of Canadian wine makes it to the UK each year.

There might not be enough demand for Canadian wine in the UK apart from me and a few nerds in the trade, of course. Don’t forget: There are still the naysayers. The curmudgeons. The people who read an article four or five years ago and still refuse to think the world has moved on since then.

The secret to turning things around is an effective marketing campaign and a concerted effort to put bottles on shelves. This was the same problem that Audi faced in the US at the start of the previous decade. At the time, the company ranked seventh in the minds of people who wanted to buy luxury cars, which more or less meant it wasn’t even something most people considered. Today, Audi is ranked second on that list. How did it turn itself around? An ad campaign that showed it was not only different to its competitors, but also better.

Given we Canadians are often considered to be ‘nice’ and ‘boring’, our wineries have a lot of work ahead of them if they want to earn international acclaim.

Riesling from British Columbia and why I need to find $7.9-million

Hey brother, can you spare $7.9-million? If so, you could own your very own vineyard in a beautiful setting among British Columbia’s Gulf Islands.

That’s right, Saturna Island Family Estate Winery is up for sale – again – and the property could be yours if you can make the mortgage payments. It’s best if you’re into your cool climate and aromatic white wines, however, because I doubt you’ll b able to make anything good other than riesling, pinot gris and chardonnay. But that’s okay, because as it turns out, British Columbia is a good place to make riesling and other aromatic white wines. That is, if you aren’t among the masses who think they’re all sickly sweet German concoctions.

Depending on your upbringing, riesling is either the greatest white wine in the world or a sickly sweet concoction often associated brands like Black Tower and Blue Nun (even if they’re actually blends of several white grape varieties).

But put a decent glass of riesling in the hands of the uninitiated – whether it is sweet, semi-sweet or bone dry – and more often than not the reaction is positive in nature.

We associate riesling with Germany and Austria, where the cooler climates in these countries suit this grape well. But the rest of the world is catching up. Australia, New Zealand, New York’s Finger Lakes; each of these regions does a great job of it. Washington State has also proved to be an ideal climate for riesling and Chateau Ste Michelle, its most widely recognised vineyard, has grown to become the world’s largest single producer of the wine.

So if Washington State can do it, why not British Columbia? First things first, riesling is not a new grape for British Columbian wine producers. There are plenty of vineyards growing it and fermenting it, but it isn’t exactly the region’s signature white grape either. Perhaps it ought to be.

There are plenty of interesting producers in B.C. but I am going to pick out two that completely blew my socks off rather than prattle on about all the others.

First up, a dry riesling fermented with wild yeasts from Saturna Island Family Estate Winery.  Where is Saturna Island, you ask? Right here.

As islands go, Saturna is sparsely populated, having about 350 permanent residents. It is close to Victoria and Vancouver as the crow flies, but feels remote and rural given that it can only be accessed by sea or air.

But if you do end up buying this vineyard, don’t expect it to be a major tourist attraction. It takes a bit of time to get there by ferry, so only the truly determined customers are likely to schlep all that way.

BCwineSaturna Riesling Wild Ferment next to a Sumac Ridge Stellar’s Jay Brut

The 2011 Wild Ferment is crisp and dry with a moderate alcohol level of 12%. It is full of citrus flavours and offered pleasant drinking overall, and seemed to have a bit of a spritz to it. I’d say it could use with a bit more refinement, but it was worth the money (about $18) and is unique in being made with indigenous yeasts. Definitely one to watch.

Next up, Tantalus Vineyards, which also makes a pinot noir that I discussed in another post.

They make two standard rieslings at Tantalus, their ‘Riesling’ and their ‘Old Vines Riesling’. There is also an icewine variant, but I won’t get into that here.

The Tantalus Riesling 2012 is a blend of old and new vines, and is off-dry with medium acidity. It has a fruity, floral aroma, and is grassy with plenty of citrus on the palate. This is the cheaper of the two, at $23, and is well worth the price.

The Tantalus Old Vines Riesling 2010 is a more mature, more rounded wine than its baby brother. The nose is full of gasoline/petrol aromas and it has plenty of citrus and lemon flavours. This is made in a dry style, but it is backed up with enough fruit to make it seem almost off-dry at times. This is definitely not a bone-dry, almost ‘stealy’ riesling. It has a lingering, fruity finish and is truly elegant. Cost? $30.

You can also find B.C. riesling at plenty of other vineyards, of course. Quails’ Gate, Nk’Mip, Cedar Creek, See Ya Later Ranch, Orofino, Snychromesh, and so on.

Now, how much would the mortgage repayments on $7.9-million be?

B.C. pinot noir: Apparently it is award-winning

Good news, everyone. A wine from British Columbia has been declared ‘best in the world.’ Yes, you read that right — the world. And not just any wine, but the most challenging of them all, the heartbreak grape, pinot noir.

Think I’m pulling your leg? If the Vancouver Sun says it is so, it must be true. And if Decanter hands out the award, well it really must be true.

There it is in the headline:

Mission Hill wins world’s best pinot noir award

Need any more convincing? Here’s a screen grab:

Screen shot 2013-10-09 at 9.25.45 PM

That’s a bold statement, isn’t it? Best pinot noir. In the world. Ah, but when we get to the story’s lead line, we are — thankfully — given the qualifying statement:

Mission Hill Family Estate has won ‘World’s Best Pinot Noir’ in the under £15 category at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

Oh. Well that’s a bit different, isn’t it? So, with that nugget of information out of the way, let’s move on to the next sentence:

Considered the world’s leading international competition, the stunning win puts B.C.’s Okanagan Valley on the world pinot noir map.

In the past, Canadian wine was reviled. But with any luck, it will soon be revered. Perhaps Canadian winemakers can do a better job with pinot noir than our various national ice hockey teams have been at winning recent world championships.

Anyway, to the more boring part of the article; the bit where I drone on about wine I have tasted.

For years, I had always wondered what all the fuss was with pinot noir. When I first saw the film Sideways, I was intrigued by it for sure, but when I travelled around Santa Barbara County tasting the wine, I wasn’t exactly sold. In fact, I was more taken by the syrah on offer. Perhaps my palate needed time to mature.

This is probably not the sort of thing I should confess given the bottle that got me into wine in the first place was, in fact, a pinot noir from WillaKenzie in Oregon.

But back in June, during a tour of vineyards in my home province of B.C., I began to notice that the pinot noir was actually pretty good. This was a new one for me.

So what did I find? Good pinot noir is available all over the valley, but I couldn’t taste it all. The highlights from my small selection came from Nk’Mip Cellars, Quails’ Gate, La Frenz and Tantalus, although this is by no means an exhaustive list.

The styles vary dramatically. Nk’Mip, which I covered in a previous blog entry, offered a basic pinot and a reserve, the former being more delicate and the latter being more Burgundian and woody. Both are good and worth buying.

However, La Frenz and Tantalus were the two big surprises for me.

La Frenz is a winery I didn’t know before I visited, but its rich pinot won me over and reminded me of the sort you would find in New Zealand’s Central Otago region. Located on the Naramata Bench north of the town of Penticton, La Frenz is in a vineyard area that is earning a reputation for good pinot.

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The La Frenz Reserve Pinot Noir 2011 is earthy, very New World and powerful, but with plenty of red fruits, some blackberries and a tannic kick. This is very New World but is also an homage to Burgundy with its woody notes. This was one of my favourites and, while it was powerful and could use some years to mature, it was balanced with dryness, acidity and tannins, so it didn’t have that annoying fruit-bomb characteristic that is found elsewhere.

IMG_0249The view of Lake Okanagan from the La Frenz tasting room

At Quails’ Gate, the operation is bigger, slicker and more commercially minded, but that doesn’t mean the quality of the wine is any lesser. This is a vineyard that makes good rieslings, chardonnays and pinot noirs, as well as a more curious variety called foch. Before you conclude that foch is a lesser wine, try the Quails’ Gate Old Vines Foch or the premium Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Old Vines Foch. You might find it surprising.

IMG_0251Quails’ Gate tasting room

As for the pinot, again, there is quality here. The basic Quails’ Gate Pinot Noir 2011 seemed to offer some of the best value in the Okanagan. With bright red cherry flavours, medium tannins and medium acidity, it is correct to the variety. Meanwhile, the Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir 2011 was a bigger wine. A very deep red colour with oaky aromas, medium tannins and a long finish, this had lots of bright red fruits and was very enjoyable.

IMG_0252Rows of vines outside the Quails’ Gate tasting room

And finally, to Tantalus. Now this is a winery that produces some satisfying wine. Best known for its incredible rieslings, its pinot noir is just starting to find its legs.

IMG_0261The Tantalus tasting room has impressive aesthetics

When I visited the vineyard, we had the opportunity misfortune to witness an event that all growers dread: a hailstorm.

This is what a hailstorm looks like from the windows of a tasting room:

IMG_0265Those clouds bring hail…

Okay, so you can’t see much other than dark clouds, but I assure you the looks on the employees’ faces was anything but happiness at that moment.

I simply loved the wines at Tantalus. This 40 acre estate produces mainly riesling and pinot noir, although they also have some chardonnay and even a syrah icewine.

The riesling is the showstopper at this estate. Made in a dry and an off-dry style, it could very well be the best riesling to come out of B.C. (more of which at another time).

But the big surprise was the Tantalus Pinot Noir 2010. Made from fruit harvested from young vines as well as older spätburgunder vines, this is a delicate, supple pinot noir with a good dose of acidity and tart red fruits. It isn’t yet polished as wines go, but there is real elegance here. Matured in 100% new French oak, there is something of a pine or cedar aroma to go along with the fruit. This has plenty of balance but still needs time in bottle.

IMG_0264Rugged Okanagan scenery as viewed from the Tantalus tasting room

And that Mission Hill pinot noir that won the Decanter award? I still haven’t tried it.

Blasted Church: Canada’s least stuffy winery?

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If there were a prize for being British Columbia’s — maybe even all of Canada’s — least stuffy winery, surely Blasted Church Vineyards would be a shoe-in for the honour.

From the names they give to their wines (Swear to God, Mixed Blessings, OMG) to their distinctly un-winery-like website and their plugged-ing Twitter account, Blasted Church is the sort of wine company that can do something that would paralyse many others with confusion: communicate to the casual wine drinker who doesn’t buy into the snobbery game.

My journey to Blasted Church was spearheaded by a British friend’s request for a bottle of wine. A bottle of Big Bang Theory, to be precise. While travelling western Canada a couple of years back, he tried the wine and decided he liked it — but sadly it isn’t available in the UK. So when he heard I was going to be in the area, he asked me to bring some back.

Now, any wine drinker will know that carrying a bottle back in your suitcase is a big commitment. This space comes at a premium in my life and I normally only reserve it for wines that *really* want to bring home with me. But considering this friend did the noble act of lugging a bottle of shiraz back from Australia for me earlier this year, it would have been churlish of me not to oblige.

Sitting on the slopes of Skaha Lake, Blasted Church is in the sort of location you wish you could live. Just look at the view from the tasting room:

IMG_0211And some more photos of the tasting room, featuring me…

IMG_0221And more shots of the vineyard…

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If  you thought branding suggested poor wines, you will have to think again. It has won over plenty of critics for its white blend, Hatfield’s Fuse, and seems to do well with its red, too.

Hatfield’s Fuse was a bit of a surprise. Looking at the packaging and the price tag, I had few expectations. In the same way I am sceptical of all critter label wines,  I don’t really have high hopes for cheeky branding or silly labels. More often than not, the branding makes up for serious deficiencies in quality (Yellowtail, anyone?), but in the case of Blasted Church, there are some real gems at fair prices.

Hatfield’s Fuse is loaded with peaches, pears, limes, apples and other fruits. This is because it is a blend of at least nine grape varieties. Nine you ask? Yes, nine: chardonnay, ehrenfelser, gewürztraminer, pinot blan, pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, riesling, optima and viognier. We’re in the Okanagan, after all, and the growers here still think they can grow everything under the sun. At least when it comes to this wine, it has worked for the best.

Meanwhile, its light and simple Big Bang Theory is another confusing blend of several varieties, including pinot noir, merlot, lemberger, cabernet franc, malbec and syrah, and produces a fruity, enjoyable wine that is perfect for unfussy occasions.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t blown over by all of this winery’s offerings. Hatfield’s Fuse is a bright spot, mixing more grapes varieties than can be remembered into fairly priced bottle. But I was let down by their Syrah, which seemed too smooth and safe for a region that needs wines to be daring and different.

Their Sauvignon Blanc 2012 was in the style of the Loire, offering a simple and fresh palate at a good price, but it wasn’t a revelation. Meanwhile, the Mixed Blessings 2012, a blend of viognier, chardonnay musqué, chardonnay and ehrenfelser had a musky note of gasoline, stone fruits and a floral, peachy note, as well as that buzzword we’re mentioning these days: minerality. It was particularly enjoyable.

For the red wines, I believe the Cabernet Merlot 2010 was one of the better offerings, certainly superior to the Syrah I drank. It had vegetal notes, dark fruits, a nice hint of vanilla/oak and an overall pleasantness. Another strong contender for my preferred red was the straight Merlot 2010, which was full of red fruits, warm stones, oak, mild tannins and two other phrases that I can’t decipher from my notes. Wait, now, I figured out what that says: “Rough around the edges.”

I was also given the chance to try the rather expensive but interesting Amen Port-de-Merlot NV. This was a nutty, oxidised sweet wine that was loaded with toffee/caramel on the nose and red fruits on the palate. It had a mouth-coating effect, but it was fairly light overall. It  was sweet and the finish was long.

Overall, Blasted Church’s wines are fairly decent, but they have their limitations. To an extent, this winery is more about being unstuffy than producing incredible icons, which means it might be a good idea to look elsewhere if you want something special for the table on Christmas Day. Despite their theological theme, this is not a pious outfit. For the most part they make wines that bring a bring a smile to your face at a reasonable price, rather than fleece you on something that has been dressed up as something it is not. And that, in itself, is a virtue.

For more on Blasted Church and an assessment of its 2011 vintage, check out John Schreiner’s wine blog.

And finally, if you want more topics that take the stuffiness out of the wine market, head over to the 12×75.com blog.

Church & State Wines: The tasting that never was

Nothing satisfies a former journalist like me more than checking back over my notes and discovering that I did, indeed, write down that nugget of information that forms the crux of my argument.

That nugget happens to be about a bottle of syrah and the price tag that was attached to it. Or, rather, the price tag that, to me, seemed just a little bit high.

Continuing with my theme of documenting my trip to the wineries of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, today I am discussing Church & State Wines. I have wanted to try this producer’s wines for quite some time but for years I was put off because of a run of mediocre reviews.

This is a winery that was founded in 2003 just minutes from where I grew up in Victoria, B.C. Originally known as Victoria Estates, it was given the usual assessment that people from Vancouver Island attach to such venture: ambitious, but in the wrong location. It was sold in 2005, the name was changed and the operation became much more serious. For starters, they started making wine in the Okanagan. That was a good decision. However, by that time I have moved to the UK and had access to their wines only when I returned to Canada for a visit.

When I planned my visit to the Okanagan, I did a little research and discovered that, according to the now-defunct Wine Access magazine, Church & State makes the ‘best red wine’ in Canada. That wine, the Coyote Bowl Syrah 2009, was what I was after.

The Church & State tasting room sits off the beaten path among the winery’s vineyards in Oliver, a small town between Osoyoos and Penticton. There isn’t much there other than a small modern winery and tasting room with few frills. The main entrance isn’t even signposted. I give them credit for keeping things simple and without too much pomp and circumstance.

IMG_0208This is pretty much the only photo I have from the winery, so brief was my visit…

When I visited, I had the benefit of being the only person there. Excellent, I thought, because this meant I could have a proper chat with the staff. But when I said I wanted to do a tasting my heart sank. Before my lay a laminated sheet upon which circular place markers had been printed for each of the wines they were going to let me try (for a purported $10, although this might not be correct).

Missing from this tasting was the Coyote Bowl syrah I wanted to try. So I made a point of saying that I really only came for the syrah and could I please try it?

To which the reply was: No.

My notes tell me that this was because the wine was in high demand and they could not possibly open a bottle for tasting when quantities are so small. This isn’t entirely abnormal, but I recall the wines that they were offering to open for me were their more mundane offerings. This was not enough to entice me to stay.

And so I walked out without tasting anything and, crucially, without buying anything.

I appreciate that it can be difficult to open bottles for tastings when commercial pressures require them to be sold. However, I was even more aghast when I discovered how much the price had risen after the award was given.

When Wine Access magazine said the Church & State Coyote Bowl Syrah 2009 was the best wine in B.C., they reported that the retail price was $26. That’s a reasonable price for such a highly acclaimed wine.

When I asked the woman at the tasting room for a price on the 2009, I was told it was $50 per bottle (although the website currently says it was $35). If I wanted the 2010, it was $35. That’s a hefty jump on the original price of $26. I guess this is the effect of being an award-winning wine and being high in demand. Although I note that other wineries with great wines, such as Sandhill, tend not to raise their prices as demand increases.

Even better, if I wanted the 2009 and the 2010 together in a special edition wooden box, the price would have been $90 for the pair.

Bargain.

To this day I still have not knowingly tasted a wine from Church & State.